Spider-Man

We managed to get good seats without lying to management that I was a columnist with USA Today Online (a great option for those of you who might need to use it), and then settled in for the half hour wait until show time. When I saw Phantom Menace, the theater had a nifty little fan-produced pre-show with folks dressed up like “Star Wars” characters fighting with plastic light sabers. Goofy, yeah, but it got the kids in the mood. Well, “Spider-Man” didn’t have a formal pre-show, but the one we got was even more exciting.

With the theater full to capacity, at some point someone complained about an odd stink about three rows up from front. The manager, a four foot tall high school senior with obvious ambitions of someday becoming a professional waitress at Denny’s, investigated, and suddenly the entire front five rows were evacuated in a squealing cacaphony of girl squeaks and pre-testosterone grunts. “Dogsh#t!” someone proclaimed.

Someone from the previous showing had left dogsh#t in the theater. At least we think it was dogsh#t.

Now I’m a harsh reviewer, for sure, but I have to give props to that guy. Damn that’s rough.

So, for the next fifteen minutes, under full house lights, the adolescent theater crew and the almost adolescent crowd milled around in a noisy, melodramatic swirl of activity, as if trying to dodge the invisible fumes of feces that rose from row three. It was Caddyshack’s pool scene performed live, and was great fun, especially since I was about seven rows back and upwind.

Armed with paper towels and fierce determination, our diminuitive manager rolled up the sleeves on her Sears suit and took to the task of removing the awful offal with plucky aplomb. After spraying the immediate area with a worse-smelling disinfectent, the crew was off to better things in other theaters, the crowd resumed their seats, and the house lights went dark, generating one of those rounds of applause that only make sense at after-prom parties and Rocky Horror showings.

I turned to my girlfriend and said, “I’ve already got the perfect metaphor for my Spider-Man review.”

Well, as it turns out, the only crap that came from the theater that night was, in fact, canine. Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” is not dogsh#t. (I invite Columbia marketing to quote FilmJerk.com with that line, placing it prominently on the next round of print ads and TV commercials.)

I’ve taken a lot of flak from GFB’s on my recent “Why Daredevil will Suck” article, especially with my pre-emptive strikes on Raimi and Spider-Man based on the trailer footage and gobs of media coverage. Hopefully same GFB’s will appreciate my ability to put face forward and rotate my opinion nearly 180 degrees, and announce that the movie is quite good. Flawed in many ways, sure, and in many of the ways I already predicted (primarly the adherence to the superhero formula), but the pluses outweigh the minuses and make the film deserving of a good run.

Let me say this: I am absolutely shocked at Toby Maguire’s performance. Whenever producers say “so-and-so has a quiet intensity going on behind those eyes” (which was said about both Maguire and Attack of the Clones star Hayden Christensen) it is code for “this guy has no emotional range, but if you use your imagination you can pretend they are acting.” Based on FilmJerk’s review of Clones, the code proves out for our young Anakin, but — believe it or not — it doesn’t for Maguire.

I was underwhelmed by Maguire’s performances in “Ice Storm,” “Pleasantville,” “Cider House Rules” and “Wonder Boys.” He has a tendency to stand very still, and act solely by moving his eyes from side to side, like some kind of half-animated Al Gore clone. He is understated to say the least, but it’s worked in some of his films, particularly “Wonder Boys,” where his character was supposed to be “off” a tad. But after three or four movies like that, one begins to think the young man has found his style-quirk, and will never break free of it, much in the way Al Pacino always shouts, Julia Roberts always horse-laughs, and Johnny Depp always purses his lips like a girl about to have her first period and pronounce herself a woman.

Who would’ve though that Sam Raimi and a costumed weirdo invented by Stan Lee (himself now a costumed weirdo) could have broken Maguire of his self-imposed acting straightjacketr

The biggest problem for anyone playing Spidey would be to show the transition from geeky, nerdturtle Peter Parker into smartmouthed, agile Spider-Man. Knowing Maguire’s tendency to act as if he cryogenically frozen, I had no hope that this transition would work. Surprise surprise. Maguire performs the task admirably, and much of the credit goes to director Sam Raimi as well. We are quickly introduced to the nerdy, “puny Parker” in a great, if short, set of scenes with Peter interacting with his schoolmates. I’m glad Raimi and screen writer David Koepp kept this part of the comic’s source material intact, instead of taking the usual Hollywood approach of casting some hunky male fembot (like Christenson) whose sole acting ability is to keep his hair in place no matter how physical the stunts get. I’m glad we didn’t get the Felicity-style actor pretending too play a high schooler. Sure, Maguire is overage, but he looks the part (especially since they cast the rest of his schoolmates with overage fags to offset Maguire’s average looks.)

Complicating matters further is that costume, which completely obscures the actor’s face, reducing any emoting to voice-overs and finger-pointing. How do you show a transition from geek to superhero if you’re wrapped in a lycra sackr

The trick, one finds out, is to give Maguire some oportunity to play all three roles — insecure Parker, confident Parker, and overconfident Spidey — with the mask off. In a clever device, a final battle with Green Goblin results in Spidey’s mask being blasted off, and we get to see Toby Maguire perform the role of Spider-Man from outside the mask, in full-on badass, jumping around mode. And get this: it works. Maguire even nails the “snappy patter” Spidey is famous for using during fights with the baddies, although this is left to a minimum in the film (but got the most laughs from the teenage crowd.)

I entered the theater thinking Maguire would stink more than the crap in row three, and left thinking I had been bamboozled out of my second dose of dogsh#t. And I don’t mind one bit.

Other good things in the film: Harry Osborn, played by Freaks & Geeks’ James Franco, develops nicely over the film. Thank goodness they didn’t give Franco the part of Parker, because he really shines as the troubled son of split-personality dad Norman Osborne, struggling for dad’s affection, but losing out to Norman’s admiration for Parker and Mary Jane’s infatuation with Spider-Man. A fine performance.

The relationship with Norman and Harry is played well, too, and I’m glad Koepp kept the dual-personality quality of the Green Goblin intact, although I am disappointed it comes about as a oh-so-tired result of “military experimentation.” The original comic emphasized, over the years, Norman’s mental illness in a time when this was not a subject for sensitive debate; the ensuing Spider-Man comic story worked the Goblin with sympathy and caring, and when Harry later takes on the role of Goblin it all made sense. The abbreviation of Goblin’s origin hurts this, but more on that later.

Filmically, the movie is fine. Pre-release shots of the sets had me worried that we were going to see another “outdoors-shot-indoors” movie that was very obviously not real New York, but a New York built in a soundstage. The soundstage scenes are evident, but not overt. One really gets the sense that the film takes place in New York and the surrounding boroughs, helped immensely by some wonderful location shooting. There is one gorgeous shot of Spidey swinging through the skyscraper canyons, shot from ground level, that was completely convincing and the single shot all Spider-man fans have been waiting for, although it is not presented as a money shot at all. It’s part of a lesser montage, but comes off like a live interpretation of one of those fantastic Alex Ross paintings. You feel you are there, if only for a few seconds.

By the way, I don’t have an opinion on the whole organic-vs.-mechanical webshooter thing, so don’t really have a gripe with that change in canon. I’ll leave that for the pudyankers at AICN.

What’s wrong with the movier Well some things, but not enough to cause too much harm. First of all, Danny Elfman really needs to retire or jump in front of a bus. Every damn soundtrack he does sounds like the last one, or worse, and this addition to his portfolio is no exception. Like the crap spewed by David Arnold or Michael Kamen, you will not go out humming the tune of Spider-Man the way you did Batman. In almost all cases, the music not only dates the film (it will sound abysmal in ten years), but it detracts from the scenes by invoking Gotham City and The Simpsons’ Springfield while Spidey is swinging over New York taxis. Smartly, Sam Raimi gets Elfman to shut the hell up during the final clash between Gobby and Web-Head, and the finale is more potent for it. There’s not even goofy waltz music, thank heaven.

Another flaw: Green Goblin doesn’t kill Macy Gray by throwing a pumpkin bomb with thirty sparkling needles at her. Oh, well.

The CGI effects suck. Let’s get that out of the way. The changes from real actor to CGI character are so stark, so obvious, it’s like watching a cartoon in some shots. Maguire and Goblin actor Willem DaFoe move one way, and then their CGI counterparts move an entirely different way. The SFX production team insist they captured “realistic movement” while enhancing it “just a bit” to make it superheroic, but in the end the CGI figures jump around without mass, without intertia, without realistic joint movement, disobeying the laws of physics to the point of absurdity, and only appear somewhat convincing when the camera is moving so fast the scene is blurred. You could very easily point out every single CGI shot in the film, and probably be 90% accurate. One shot of Spidey bouncing on giant parade balloons is so bad, it looks like an old Reboot episode. Dykstra blew it, but not terribly so. Average, non-tech-savvy filmgoers will probably not care. Besides, the wallcrawling and web effects are cool, way cool, and make up for any other SFX lapses. It made me wish I had little sticky spikes coming from my fingers, if for no other reason than I could very easily scale telephone poles and illegally hook up free cable.

Mary Jane Watson’s character, protrayed ably by Kirsten Dunst, is nowhere near as interesting as her comic book counterpart. Oddly, the filmmakers chose to use MJ instead of Peter’s first comic book girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, because they felt MJ was more dynamic and interesting. Then they proceeded to take her comic book qualities — overconfidence, sarcastic sass, serpentine sensuality — and gut them so that the result is blander than Gwen ever was. Don’t get me wrong: MJ is a good character in the movie, and there is some legitimate chemistry between Maguire and Dunst, but it’s not what it could have been, largely due to formula constraints.

Those formula constraints are the film’s largest flaws. Superhero films feel the need to jam forty comic book issues worth of material into 120 minutes, and suffer as a result; Spider-Man is no different. Faced with the obligatory supervillain plotline, we have to establish TWO origins very quickly, and thus both are weakened. Green Goblin’s origin is told over the course of perhaps four minutes, interspersed uncomfortably during some otherwise very good scenes that attempt to develop Parker and get us to know Maguire as the character. But inevitably we are jarred back to the stupid “evil-corporation-doing-scientific-research” B-plot that harkens to Raimi’s Darkman or Verhoeven’s Robocop. The two plotlines don’t work well together, and would have been better left for two separate movies, but alas this is not allowed. A superhero must have a supervillain. (One film that broke this mold, The Crow, remains one of the best comic adaptations ever. But no one learned.) Likewise, Parker’s relationship with Uncle Ben and Aunt May, so absolutely critical to the origin, is abbreviated and thus not as strong as it should be.

Another casualty to too much content in too little time, Willem Dafoe is wasted, although does a fairly good job as the split Osborn/Goblin character, even if Gobby is really just The Joker warmed over. (Don’t expect too much from J. K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, either; he’s the most garish of the caricatures, and the actor plays the part with a rapid-fire speech pattern that is more “annoying actor” than “annoying character.”)

Once the origins are out of the way, the film hits its stride by working on the relationships between Parker and MJ, Harry and Norman, Spidey and Goblin, and every permutation thereof. Cool stuff, and even Aunt May is given a scene or two to reinforce her relationship with Peter. Then the film, or rather the screenwriter, takes a stumble. In order to put his two adversaries into conflict, Koepp resorts to one of the oldest cliches in the book: the villain tries to convert the hero. I mean, damn, even Mike Myers parodied this tired old device in Austin Powers. “We’re not so much different, you and I,” says both Dr. Evil AND Green Goblin. I groaned when I heard it. It’s merely to get his characters to start throwing punches, but is that the best we can hope forr

But it’s a temporary trip-up, and Raimi smartly breaks mold and jumbles up action sequences into an unexpected order. When you think the finale is upon you, it’s not… he’s got something else up his sleeve, and it’s pretty darn cool. Sure, there’s the obligatory high-altitude battle (instead of a cathedral / Statue of Liberty / skyscraper, we get the top of a bridge), but it’s not the climax, thankfully. Goblin doesn’t plunge to his death, laughing on the way down. Whew!

In the end, we’re left with a Marvel-style morality tale about real people affected by unreal forces. The superhero movies seem to be developing much the way actual comic books had, from the gothic, fantastic locations and too-mythical heroes of the old DC comics, to the more reality-based, superheroes-with-real-problems characters of Marvel. Bryan Singer’s X-Men set this tone, to some degree, and Raimi’s Spider-Man carries on, towards a perhaps as-yet-unrealized perfect blend of incredible heroes in credible worlds. When I watch a superhero movie, I want to feel as if I am a real-world observer, and if the imagery and fantasy break the illusion of reality (a la Burton/Schumacher’s Gotham City) it disconnects me from the world, and becomes nothing more than a movie. Spider-Man does a better job of blending its reality with the craziness of a guy in a blue and red suit shooting webs out of his wrist, and it’s a welcome trend.

Spider-Man is flawed, but as the crowd of young people around me will attest — and let’s be honest, that’s who the movie is for — it’s one hell of a ride.

Rating: B
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